Anyone who has tried to take notes by the light of a projection screen while sitting on a hard-backed chair balancing a notebook on one knee knows the value of an ergonomically designed meeting environment. Conference centers distinguished themselves early on by focusing on key meeting developments--lighting, chairs, audiovisual, and so on--that supported their clients' business needs. Today, conference centers continue to upgrade, aiming to keep pace with emerging communication and presentation technologies that are changing the way business works--and meets.

In 1997, Dolce International, a Montvale, NJ-based conference center company, surveyed its clients, asking about the technology they use in their offices and what they expect from a conference center. The bottom line: "Clients expect their conference center to have at least as good or better technology than they have at their corporate headquarters," says Jo Ann Swahn, Dolce International senior vice president of sales and marketing. The meetings industry, she says, must deal with a technological revolution that is changing how people work, play, and live. "Employees are working harder than before," Swahn says. "Work environments are fully automated and virtual offices keep them connected to the workplace, whether at home or on the road."

Reacting to these trends, Dolce, other conference center companies, and some forward-thinking hotel companies, are examining the way they operate in order to be ready for the next millennium.

High-Wire Act In guest rooms, the trend is definitely in the direction of multiple high-speed data and telephone lines. "The biggest changes in the future are going to come in communications," says Jim DeVore, telecommunications director at Dolce International's Hamilton Park Conference Center in Florham Park, NJ. "There will be more digital access, more ISDN lines, and particularly more T1 lines." DeVore is talking about the basic connectivity that determines how quickly and clearly a user can connect to the Internet, which is critical for communication technology, including teleconferencing.

In 1998 Hamilton Park will bring two telephone lines to every guest room. "And by 1999," DeVore says, "we should have dedicated access to T1 or ISDN lines in all guest rooms."

In addition to Hamilton Park's initiatives, Dolce International is reevaluating its guest room technology companywide. It is looking at the possibility of having up to three separate telephone lines in each guest room--one for voice communication, one for Internet use, and a third to connect a business guest with the home office. Says Swahn: "We'll also be looking at having workstations in guest rooms with a copier/fax/printer combination and a color copier in the business center." .

Of course, some centers already take in-room technology to the extreme. At Marriott's IBM/Palisades Executive Conference Center in Palisades, N.Y., all rooms have an IBM PS/2 computer with CD-ROM, and Internet access through a local area network (LAN). The computers can be networked so that an in-house group has room-to-room connections. This setup may not seem like a surprise once you know that the property does 50 percent of its business with IBM, but as demand for computer access strengthens, this wired guest room may soon be commonplace.

"The biggest challenge we face is keeping [the computers] current," says Rich Russo, Palisades' consulting information technology (IT) architect. "We don't want to interrupt a guest's use of the computer, so every six months, we update all of the machines. We are implementing network computers so that all applications run on the network and we have a point of central control. Right now we have to individually restore our guest computers to standard once a guest leaves because guests can add or delete applications or leave their own material on the machine. We should have network computers installed by the end of the first quarter of 1998."

Presentation Tech Meeting room technology is moving even faster than that for guest rooms. Educational and communications aids that were, at best, highly impractical just a few years ago are now finding their place in conference center meeting rooms. Take for example, Le Mirador Hotel and Conference Center, on Mont Pelerin in Switzerland, where some meeting rooms are outfitted with an electronic brainstorming tool called GroupSystems V.

With this system, every participant sits at a computer that is networked to a central projector. Participants contribute anonymously to ideas taking shape on each individual's monitor and on a large projection screen. The system's potential for fostering open, nonhierarchical discussions is intriguing, to be sure. Here is a sampling of other thought-provoking conference center meeting room technology:

* Hamilton Park offers a PolyCom duplex speakerphone with microphone inputs, which allows 10 to 30 people in a room to teleconference with another location. Such large teleconferences are impossible with a single unit placed on a table with participants grouped around it.

* Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle, opened in June 1996, boasts the only built-in simultaneous interpretation equipment (for up to six languages) on the West Coast. In its 250-seat Bay Auditorium, there's an electronic group interaction system (EGIS) that provides each conference participant with a wireless, hand-held, voting device. EGIS questions and results are projected onto rear-projection screens in 11 meeting rooms and breakout rooms.

* Early this year, IBM/Palisades installed electronic whiteboards in all 21 classrooms and the 350-person Watson Room. Whatever is written on the board is sent to a computer and can be projected, saved, and/or printed. Also in the Watson Room, touch-screen controls in the lectern allow speakers to control presentation graphics and all audiovisual equipment.

* In IBM/Palisades there are three computer labs, which seat 16, 24, or 32 people. Each participant has a Pentium PC on the desk. These are commonly used for Internet labs or training on software applications such as Lotus Notes.

Experts on Call One of the benefits of working with conference centers in the past has been that they tend to own their own meeting room technology, but as the pace of technological change quickens, conference centers may gain their edge more by being able to implement and assist planners with their technological needs.

At Hickory Ridge Conference Center in Lisle, Ill., Bill Kenney, equipment service manager, can offer rear-screen projection built into 15 meeting rooms, along with LCD projection and LCD panels; CRT projectors mounted in the ceilings for use with front screens; and Sony 1270 data projectors built into six conference rooms. But even with all his state-of-the-art equipment, one of Kenney's biggest problems is keeping all the projectors up to date so that they mesh with the programs that presenters use on their laptops.

"We may turn to leasing equipment because it gets outdated so quickly," he says. "At the rate of change, it's no longer cost-effective for conference centers to buy technological improvements. What we buy today can be obsolete before it's delivered." One commodity Kenny will keep in-house is expertise. For example, says Kenney, "Because PowerPoint currently seems to be the most popular presentation program, Hickory Ridge is training some conference service staff in PowerPoint so that changes can be made on-site, and we can make alterations if necessary to go with our equipment."

This dedication to the business of meetings has, over the years, allowed conference centers to carve out a niche for themselves. Their attention to advances in technology, underlined by a service-

oriented mentality, may be what continues to set them apart. *

On-Campus Centers Target Medical Meetings Ann Vander Lende, director of the Eric P. Newman Education Center/Field Services, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, believes that many common conference center amenities are now or will soon be available at her center, which was built for medical meetings.

"The podium area in the main auditorium was designed by doctors," Vander Lende says."All the meeting rooms have access to the Internet, and from the podium a speaker can project an image from the Web; project X rays, charts, and MRIs; or connect the meeting room with an operating room to view surgery in progress." The Newman Center plans an adjacent 200-room hotel. The center has three auditoriums, and seminar rooms that seat 195 persons classroom style.

Last year, the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston added teleconferencing, videoconferencing, and video and audio reproduction of seminars--as recorded by eight ceiling-hung video cameras that lower and swivel to follow speakers. A Marriott-managed hotel is connected by a walkway.

Do Attendees Want the Fax? More than half of all business travelers carry personal computers, and 80 percent of those computers are equipped with a modem, according to a survey of 395 business guests by Marriott Lodging International. Almost 50 percent of respondents want access to data ports and telephone jacks, but only 18 percent like in-room fax machines. Beyond that, some road warriors want coffee pots, ironing boards, and comfortable chairs; others don't care about the other amenities once their meeting technology needs are met.